Again on Ancient Historiography

Tony Sig

In my class on Tacitus, we’re doing a lot of ‘what’s really going on in Tacitus’-talking, a large portion of which proceeds from basic assumptions about either the author himself or ancient historiography in general. Yet these assumptions have been insufficiently established imo.

For instance, the editors of our primary text have an introductory essay on ancient historiography which runs roughshod over the explicit aims of the ancient historians themselves and asserts, despite the contrary primary evidence, the old tired line about the difference between ancient history and ‘modern history.’ Yet here the editors go further than simply suggesting that these performed history poorly and unobjectively (unlike modern history, clearly), as goes the common – and sometimes correct – assertion, and argue, based nearly exclusively on some passing remarks on the rhetorical style of history in Cicero(!) , that history was intended to be quite loose with respect to ‘facts’ and serves more as moral instruction.

Now, I have no objection whatsoever to examining whether in performance any historian, ancient or modern, is able to stick to their principles – they may say they value a certain style of history yet fail on purpose or accident to do thus – but there’s gotta be something like an honest assessment of the primary work to bear it out, one that relies more strongly on the explicit aims and methods of history according to how the historians describe their work, rather than a convoluted meta-hermeneutic that reads over these passages a reading-into the performance of their histories. As if all the talk of historiographical method in these authors was just a purposeful misrepresentation of what they were really getting at, which, to understand properly, one must ignore instead for a reading-between-the-lines approach that will at long last finally lay bare their true purposes. According to this method, ancient history was really a puzzle game for those in the know. Anyone who thought they were trying to report things that actually happened is a pathetic knucklehead (though if they could read and have access to Tacitus, they couldn’t have been that stupid!) who has missed the point.

The same goes for certain styles of biblical criticism as far as I’m concerned. For instance with regards to some of the wild claims about the genre of the Gospels and Acts. Thankfully we have works like Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History, or Richard Bauckham’s important Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony to illuminate more properly just what these historians were saying about the work they were doing. Here again, as in establishing critical texts or in giving historical-grammatical examinations, biblical studies blazes ahead for Classics.

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